The Year of the Runaways

by Sunjeev Sahota

This book was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize.  I came across reviews of it while looking for another book with the word ‘runaway’ in the title, and it immediately appealed, so I ordered it from the library.

The runaways of the title are four young Sikhs trying to make their lives in the UK.  The three men are all from India, and have arrived in the UK either illegally or with contrived (and bought) student or marriage visas.  Each has a back story involving more or less harrowing experiences in India, so that the reader is compelled to empathise with their choice to try their luck in a new country.  Perhaps we empathise still more when we realise the huge personal cost and, indeed, personal and financial risk that they put themselves through in order to achieve their dream.  We hear of other people, peripheral to the story, who try the same thing and meet tragic ends.

The fourth character, and perhaps the one to whom the British reader can feel the closest affinity, is a young girl who has grown up in the UK and is expected to marry the person her family has chosen for her.  She is deeply religious, and accepts her duty willingly.  But her religious zeal brings her into contact, when performing charitable works on an annual visit to the temple in India, with a poor family whose daughter has migrated to the UK.  She seeks out the daughter, and her sympathy for the family leads her to take a momentous step in her own life – becoming a runaway in her own right.

The lives of the four intertwine, as we follow their stories: living in distressingly shabby accommodation; exploited by employers (and, to some extent, each other); living from hand to mouth; becoming victims and perpetrators of violent acts; and constantly hiding and moving around for fear of being exposed.

The story’s epilogue shows a more positive, sustainable future for the four.  I can’t help feeling that the author is being overly optimistic.  But this is, at base, a heart-warming story, with likeable characters.  You can’t help wishing them well.

Coram Boy

by Jamila Gavin

I’m not entirely sure where I heard about this book.  I suppose I was browsing for information about some other title or some aspect of history.  The novel won the Whitbread CHildren’s Book award when it was published a few years ago, and I would say that the award was well deserved.  The title intrigued me, after I had visited the Foundling Museum in London (a project initiated by Thomas Coram in the eighteenth century) just over a year previously.

The plot is gripping, and the eighteenth century setting is completely believable.  The book is thoughtful and carefully researched, and the characters as well as the plot are interesting. Mish, the ‘baddie’, is himself a complex character and a victim of circumstances.

There are some books that you wish you had had the benefit of reading as a child.  This is one of them.  It reminded me of reading Cynthia Harnett’s The Woolpack when I was ten or eleven. That book, also a historical novel for children, made a powerful impression on me and awakened in me an interest in medieval history and the landscape of the Cotswolds, where I now live.

Tango in Madeira: a dance of life, love and death

by Jim Williams

I downloaded this book while on holiday in Madeira, having briefly searched the internet for novels set on the island.

The setting is the Madeira of expatriates in the 1920s.  Three young men, who have served in the First World War and are, each in his own way, psychologically scarred by it, arrive on the island on board a ship bound for South Africa.  The ship is obliged to stay in port for a couple of weeks for repair work (and there are hints that it may have been sabotaged).  The three men’s lives cross and re-cross, and their relationships and encounters with inhabitants and visitors to the island form the plot, such as it is.

None of the characters is very sympathetic.  They are all egotistical and, to a greater or lesser extent, dissipated.  What stands out is the setting, which appealed to me as I was on the island at the time I was reading the book, and easily recognised most of the locations.  I found I could easily imagine Madeira as it might have been in the twenties, with wine merchants living in luxurious but already quite dilapidated mansions up the hillside in Monte, and low-life prowling the streets of Funchal.  The colonials have their own rules, their own doctors and policemen, and their lives scarcely impinge on the local community.

Famous visitors to Madeira come into the story, as marginal characters with no real significance.  There is some humour in the way in which the narrator is oblivious to Agatha Christie’s new-found fame, and assumes her to be a minor writer of children’s fiction (through hearing the title of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles as The Mysterious Fairy Stiles).  George Bernard Shaw assumes another name and, although his identity is suspected by several characters, others strenuously deny that it is he.  The exiled Emperor Karl of Austria plays a central role in some parts of the story – but even he is not quite what he appears.

The author uses various literary devices -letters, short plays, as well as prose narrative – and this could be distracted, but I found it made the book more interesting to read.  This is, in the end, a light-weight but enjoyable book.

The Paying Guests

by Sarah Waters

Waters is a good writer of historical fiction.  This is the first of her novels that I have read, though I saw the TV version of Tipping the Velvet.  She writes about women’s lives, especially lesbian women and their experiences, mainly focussing on the nineteenth century.  This book is, apparently, unusual in being based in the 1920s.

The characters are realistic and accessible.  Much of the plot revolves around a court case, and Waters has evidently done her research.  For me, this is less interesting than the social and domestic detail that populates the book.  I found the setting utterly convincing, and could almost smell the house, as the various characters enter and leave it.

Frances is a victim of the devastating aftermath of the war.  Her father has left the family in debt, her brother has died, and Frances and her mother help to make ends meet by letting a couple of rooms in the family house to the ‘paying guests’ of the title.  Frances becomes involved with one of the guests.

This is a love story, a moral tale, and a gripping legal case.  The sex scenes are fairly graphic, but they fit the story, and they are also believable.  I would willingly (and probably shall) read more by this author.